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HP imbroglio spurs more calls for new laws

The burgeoning scandal at Hewlett-Packard reflects a broader problem that Congress must tackle through new laws, the Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus said Friday.

"Clearly the problem of corporations using private detectives and information brokers to obtain illicit access to telephone records and other personal information is not limited to Hewlett-Packard," Rep. Edward Markey, a veteran Massachusetts politician, said in a statement. "Congress needs to be asking exactly how widespread this practice is, and whether companies are skirting or even violating the law by prying into the details of people's telephone records or other personal information."

The statement came the week before a U.S. House of Representatives oversight and investigations panel plans to grill Hewlett-Packard executives and outside investigators about the company's probe into journalists, employees and board members suspected of involvement in media leaks.

Markey called for enactment of new consumer privacy laws and a bill--sponsored, not surprisingly, by himself--designed to outlaw the sale of Social Security numbers.

The congressman also lashed out at House Speaker Dennis Hastert for, by his account, "mysteriously" sidelining a bill passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this year that was aimed at outlawing "pretexting," the practice of using fraudulent means to obtain telephone records. HP executives have admitted that tactic was employed by investigators to tail two employees, 7 current or former board members, and 9 journalists, including three from CNET Hastert's office was not available for comment.

Although he believes pretexting is already illegal and subject to prosecution by federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, tightening and clarifying existing laws is necessary, Markey saida.

The House, for its part, already approved by a unanimous vote in April a different pretexting measure. Reinvigorated by news of the HP situation, leaders from the House sent a letter to the Senate recently urging it to pass that proposal as soon as possible.

Senate aides said Friday that their bosses are close to approving their own version of pretexting legislation. The measure had stalled over differences in legislation passed by the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees earlier this year, but negotiations on the language are now close to complete, paving the way for a vote as soon as next week, aides said.

But whatever they come up with would still have to be reconciled with the House's version, and with only a few days remaining before Congress recesses for pre-election campaigning, it's unclear how good prospects for new legislation are during this term.